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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- End To Ethnic Federalism In Russia?

Washington, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian minister responsible for federation affairs said this week that ethnic groups that do not form a majority within a particular territory should be given extra-territorial cultural autonomy rather than the current territorially based federal units.

The move is viewed as the latest indication that some in Moscow may be preparing to do away with one of the last-surviving fundamental principles of the Soviet state.

Speaking at a Moscow meeting of Russia's ethnic Germans on 27 August, Aleksandr Blokhin, the Russian minister for federation affairs, nationalities and migration policy, said the Russian government has no plans to restore the German Autonomous Republic that was suppressed in August 1941 when Stalin deported that area's German residents to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

But Blokhin also used the occasion to say that from his perspective ethnic groups that do not form a majority in a compact territory should not have territorial autonomy. Instead, he said, these groups should enjoy extra-territorial cultural autonomy. Blokhin said that such arrangements, for example, are the most appropriate form of administration for the many peoples in the North Caucasus.

On the one hand, Blokhin's comments represent the logical extension of Russian state policies over much of the last decade. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- which many Russians and others blame on the existence of territorially based ethnic federalism -- the Russian government has sought to prevent the extension of existing ethnic-based political units to any group that did not have one in the past.

Moscow has adopted and begun to implement a system of providing cultural autonomy for the country's smaller and most dispersed groups which lack their own political territories and for members of groups that do have such territories but who live outside those territories. Thus, some of the very smallest ethnic communities have formed groups to defend their culture, as have larger more dispersed groups like the Tatars.

But on the other hand, Blokhin's remarks point to the possibility that Moscow may be planning a new offensive against existing federal units both in the North Caucasus and more generally. In most of the ethnically based republics in the North Caucasus, the titular nationality does not form a majority. And consequently, under Blokhin's system, they would be candidates for dissolution and inclusion in larger, non-ethnically based units.

Many in that region are likely to view Blokhin's remarks as a direct threat, particularly because this week "Obshchaya gazeta" carried an article calling for the creation of a new eighth federal district in the North Caucasus that would be responsible for managing the ethnic republics in that region. The existing Southern federal district, under this plan, would continue to supervise the Russian regions there.

More generally, Blokhin's plan could lead to the suppression of the majority of ethnically based units elsewhere as well. Of the 22 ethnic republics, oblasts, and regions that exist in the Russian Federation today, only six have non-Russian pluralities. And using Blokhin's logic, the other 16 would appear to be slated for extinction.

Officials and residents in non-Russian regions far from the North Caucasus are increasingly nervous that President Vladimir Putin's oft-stated wish to reestablish central control over the country and to create a common legal space represents a direct threat to their interests. And some of them are beginning to organize to defend their prerogatives against any such challenge.

In recent days, for example, Bashkir nationalist groups have called for an alliance with Tatarstan to defend the rights of their two republics against a reassertion of Moscow's control. And officials in other non-Russian regions have indicated that they too will seek to defend the interests of their regions even if they are willing to harmonize their laws with Russian legislation, as Moscow has demanded.

The leaders of the non-Russian territorial units of the Russian Federation have a vested interest in the current division of power and authority, and they are likely to resist any effort to suppress the political units they now head. The danger that such resistance could get out of hand is something many Russian officials appear to recognize.

These officials have good reason for such an understanding: Many of them now acknowledge that the Soviet Union came apart not only and perhaps not so much because Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the center's control over the union republics, but rather because having yielded power to the regions, Moscow tried to take that power back.

Because of the possibility that this history might repeat itself, Blokhin's proposals are unlikely to be implemented any time soon. But the fact that he has put them forward suggests that tensions between Moscow and the non-Russian units of the Russian Federation are likely to grow in the immediate future, a trend that may further complicate the lives of the Russian policy makers in the Kremlin.